An exploration into the Columbian and Peruvian Ayuahuasca Traditions and an unexpected meeting with the ‘The Toad’ (Bufo Alvarius). Psychedelics and Yoga. Healing Trauma in Mexico.
According to research by led by Dr. Peter Levine and Dr. Van der Kolk, trauma is experienced when we feel that our capacity to respond is taken away from us. This is why soldiers who experience a surprise attack are more likely to suffer from PTSD than soldiers who are responsible for the surprise attack. There is violence on both ends, but the surprise of the attack can leave the surprised soldiers feeling like they could not respond to the situation. Off the battle field and into daily life, this perception of an inability to respond is also highly correlated with anxiety and depression. I discuss this in greater detail here.
There is also evidence that as a first response to stress and fear human beings look to the facial expressions and the physical touch of other human beings to help instantly regulate cortisol levels and the fight-flight stress response. It is postulated that if this fight-flight response is left alone to accelerate, it can result in ´freezing´ – a paralysis of the nervous system. This can then manifest as symptoms of trauma associated with PTSD and depression. The video below offers a more in depth explanation of this psych-biological process of trauma.
Therefore, when the Covid-19 restrictions in Spain forced me to unexpectedly close the doors of my center, take all my classes online, isolate myself from others and move back to America, leaving behind everything I had built up for almost a decade, and move into a world of fear where even my own mother refused to hug me for fear of Covid contagion, I knew I had all the right ingredients just waiting to cook themselves up into a masterpiece of trauma and depression.
In an effort to move out of this difficult period, I enrolled in a Yoga Therapy course with the Paramanand Institute. This Yoga Therapy certification course was educative and helped me to release some of this stored up stress. However, it was the relationship I developed with other Yoga therapists which acted as the greatest trauma healing balm during this time of transition.
After finishing this Yoga Therapy certification course I experienced an irresistible urge to get out of my safe and comfortable isolation that I had been enjoying with my tia (aunt) on her farm in Alabama. I felt my wounds had sufficiently healed enough so that I could strap on my backpack and start exploring the world once again.
I decided that since my experience of Ayahuasca in Barcelona had been so constructive and positive and appeared to correspond with the aforementioned research outlined in Part I, I would start my journey of integrating psychedelics & yoga for healing & trauma in a place where access to these ceremonies was easily accessible and where I had a friend of over 15 years to help support me in the journey. I decided to head south to Mexico.
My aim was to explore further the healing practices of psychedelic indigenous medicine, like Ayahuasca, its healing trauma effects upon others, as well as my own sense of anguish and disempowerment that was sitting ominously somewhere in the back of my mind. It was there, just looming over me, and threatening to suffocate my usual sense of curiosity and adventure. Still in contact after 15 years, I reached out to my friend Alberto who was still living in the Yucatán Peninsula working as a tour guide.
The Columbian Ayahuasca (Yagé) Tradition
Less than a week after arriving to the Yucatán, my friend Alberto and I drove out to a small and beautiful little eco-dome located in the middle of the jungle near Playa del Carmen. We had prepared ourselves for the Ayahuasca ceremony with light vegetarian meals, no coffee and no alcohol for three days. I intensified my Yoga practice and participated in an ice bath (see right) at Alberto´s insistence. I also fasted for 18 hours before participating in the ceremony.
After my experience in BarcelonaI had learned to head into these ceremonies without any kind of expectation – BUT I would be lying if I didn’t say I wasn’t a little nervous about what might happen. When Alberto and I got to the eco-dome, there was a group of about 20 others (a pretty even mix of international and Mexican participants). Some were new to the world of psychedelics for trauma healing while others were experienced veterans. Everyone quietly mulling about, setting up their mats chatting away while awaiting the arrival of the Columbian Shaman. When he arrived I felt instantly reassured by the genuine and friendly smile that seemed permanently etched onto his face. Meeting him I understood why the the Ayahuasca shamans were often called abuelos (grandfather) or Taita (Healers). He moved with ease and joked quietly with those nearby. When he told us he was was 70 years old, I thought he could easily have been 15 years younger.
He spoke briefly and informed us that in Columbia Ayahuasca is often referred as Yagé (pronounced Yah-Hey) and that he was both a shaman and medical doctor but that the true healing came from the plant herself, not from him. With that stated, the ceremony started with the fire pit being lit and the four directions being honored with a blow of a conch shell and a shouted ¡Ah HO!
Participants patiently sat on their mats awaiting the signal to get in line to take their first toma (dose) of the evening. The Shaman informed us that there was honey within the the psychedelic brew and as we approached to take the first toma he clarified if it was our first experience or not – and then poured the ayahuasca from the corresponding bottle.
After everyone had taken the first toma, the silence began. This great silence was the most obvious difference I experienced between that of the tradition of Santo Diame and the approach of this Columbian Shaman. Once and while a the sound of a distant harmonica would come in, like notes dancing along the wind. It was in that silence that I was was transported to a space beyond my own mental computations and expectations.
Like my experience in Barcelona, my body trembled in all the same places as before, with Ka, my sarcastic , serpent, spiritual guide, nearby, wiggling and flying through my minds eye. However, this time, all we did was smile in recognition of one another, in complete silence, no words exchanged.
Then Ka disappeared and I was taken into the depths of grief once again, much like I had experienced with the second ceremony, only this time no one came to embrace me. Suddenly, without thinking, I opened my eyes, got off my mat and I ran towards a tree and purged absolutely anything and everything that could have possibly been hidden inside of me. Primal screams, tears and guttural groans escaped from my throat, my chest, my gut. There was an assistant in the ceremony who came over to offer me some tissues, but there were no feathers or songs to ease the pain. It appeared to me that the Shaman thought it best to just let me move through this purging process on my own.
Dimensions of Creation
Once I made it back to my mat, laid down and closed my eyes, I was met with complete and total darkness and a sense of sweet weightlessness and the best way I can explain the following experience was one of passing through dimensional layers. In the darkness I felt no fear – just a sense of awe and wonder as I found myself surrounded by the pregnant darkness of a primeval beginning breathing in and through me.
I whispered for Ka, but was met with the reply that ´I do not exist in this dimension ´. Abruptly I seemed to move out of the darkness and into a space of fractals, colors and shapes repeating, moving, releasing, melting and molding into and out of one another and eventually into the images of what some might call the great mother – a very similar image that I had envisioned in my second ceremony but this time instead of holding and comforting me – she opened her arms, looked straight at me and seemed to be beckoning for me to see something.
Then all of the sudden there was Ka again. Smiling, wiggling and flying through this scene. Laying on my back, I opened my eyes and found myself transfixed by the shape and movement of the branches overhead and the dance of the leaves. This midnight scene kept offering me images of darkness than twinkles of light, showing me the beauty of distant stars and the void of darkness in between.
Contemplating this experience, it was as if I had been taken through the many dimensions of existence…moving from a primal, dark and empty space pregnant with possibility into more and more complicated, colorful, animated and eventually denser forms of existence. Each layer, each dimension, distinct yet intricately connected. The ceremony ended with me deeply pondering the nature of existence, of life itself and the futility of fear. I rode home in silence and arrived to my bed completely exhausted. I slept soundly with the sun streaming through the window and the sunday market singing to me about bananas, electronics, lotes and tacos.
Bufo Alvarius – The Toad
When I arrived to Playa del Carmen I had only thought about participating in ayahuasca ceremonies and perhaps, if the opportunity arrived, a peyote ceremony. It was only when my friend Alberto discussed his experience with ´El Sapo ´ did I even learn that Bufo Alvarius existed.
Bufo Alvarius is a Sonaran Desert toad which possesses a special enzyme, called O-methyl transferase. This converts the chemical Bufotenin into 5-MEO-DMT – a very powerful and potent psychoactive substance of animal origin. The location of this psychoactive substance resides within two external glands on either side of its head. Representations of these parotid glands can be found greatly emphasized in Aztec art.The effects of this venom are not necessarily identical to those of pure 5-MeO-DMT. Toad venom contains numerous substances and the role of each of them in the total effect is not known with any certainty.
The effects of smoking this substance usually lasts less than 20 minutes in duration and often comes on with unexpected and overwhelming intensity. The research group ICEERS describes the experience of Bufo alvarius as:
“…usually very immersive, and produces an extreme variation in perception. Many people describe sensations of cosmic unity, of access to non-dual consciousness and deep spiritual experiences. Some people have compared it to the experience of dying and accessing states similar to those described in Buddhist and Hindu traditions such as Nirvana or Tathāgata, beyond the beyond. The loss of a sense of identity and dissolution of the ego is common, as well as oceanic sensations of merging with everything…Movements can be produced during the experience, as well as involuntary expressions of sounds such as screaming, singing, or crying…”
Fear and panic can be experienced due to the rapid and intense onset of the effects. And it is highly encouraged, if not necessary, to make sure that when going into this experience there is a knowledgeable guide or sober caregiver. I would say to anyone who feels a call to try Bufo Alverius – DO NOT go into this experience alone.
Ancient History – ‘The Toad’
The existence of toads and their venom being used for medical practices and healing can be found throughout world and history, as far back as the Neanderthals. The presence of toad iconographic and mythological representations exist amongst the artifacts of the Olmec, Mayan and Aztec cultures and date back as far as 2000 BCE (see photo to above and photo to the left). According Anglo-Dominican friar Thomas Gage, tobacco leaves and venom from toads were added to the fermented beverages of the Mayan Poloman people of Guatemala to increase their potency.
I wish I had taken the time to do the above research before jumping into the experience. Despite Alberto warning that ´once you go toad, you never go back´, I took it very lightly. I figured I had already been through 6 Ayahuasca ceremonies and that this experience with the ´the toad´ was not going to be too different. My pride and ignorance blinded me and I went into the ceremony completely unprepared for what what came next.
About two weeks after the Yagé ceremony with the Columbian Shaman, serendipitously Alberto had former co-worker, friend and shaman who had been trained with Dr. Octavio Rettig – the man featured in the film below. Alberto’s friend would be in Cancun that weekend and offered to take me through a private ceremony of ´El Sapo ´ on the beach.
Gratefully Alberto offered to come with me, though he himself declined to participate. He made it clear that his two previous ceremonies with the toad were enough. He did not deny that in the future he might revisit the experience, but at the moment, he felt no need to delve into the ceremony a third time.
Driving through the back roads of some abandoned and magically untouched part of the Cancun coastline, we arrived to the ceremonial spot. There was nothing there except for a small thatched roof and lots of sand and sunshine. For a small fee, a Mexican woman that the Shaman seem to know and who kept guard let us pass through, park the van and set up the ceremony under this thatched roof.
A thick blanket with various symbols sewn into it was laid down and an alter set up. The Shaman sang songs, offered a few prayers and then had me sit in the middle of this blanket looking out over the ocean. He pulled out a small pipe, explained that I would need to double inhale, hold the air in than gently and slowly exhale it out. I followed his instructions and then completely lost all sense of myself.
A Journey to the great Beyond
Even as I write this, I am finding it hard to focus in on where to begin the description of the experience as both the sense of self (the ego) and time seem to have completely disintegrated. I remember falling back to the earth and feeling like, as I exhaled, all the molecules and atoms of my body separated and dispersed out into the ether until the only thing in existence was a kind of ebbing and flowing of luminous fractals of all colors and a sensation of heat and pure electricity. I became one with this luminous flow as well as a low and pulsating hum that months later, I heard once again (and in fact, caused a kind of mini-flashback) while watching a documentary on the nature of black holes. The sound can be heard between minutes 1.06 – 1.07 of the film below.
I am not sure how long I was in that space but somewhere and somehow I become more aware of my body and I felt myself writhing back to reality, then lifting my pelvis off the ground and pressing through my solar plexus, I began screaming from the very depths of my being – continuously.
I have no idea why I was screaming. I did not see any kind of threatening or frightening image. It was just a 100% somatic reaction that was totally void of any logical reasoning or explanation. I screamed and screamed, I felt the space under my sternum, just under the xiphiod process, like a cracking oyster shell, opening. I distinctly remember the Shaman standing over me as I opened my eyes and cried, shaking my head back and forth, ´No puedo, no puedo, I can’t, I can’t ´. His eyes were bright green and wide and I remember thinking they were like two toad eyes looking straight through me. He firmly answered that ´Si! Si, puedes!´ (Yes, yes you can!). He then started to repeat again and again in between songs and prayers, ´Eres amor, todo es amor’ (you are love, everything is love).
I then closed my eyes and disappeared once again into a sense of nothing, only to come back crying and chanting ´AUM´. It was a sound that vibrated throughout my whole pelvis, solar plexus and chest. I remember Alberto nearby, his hand over my sternum, reminding me to breath as the Shaman kept singing. I was vaguely aware of the woman who let us in, watching the scene.
I then flipped over onto my belly and with my eyes closed saw clearly, the fractal like image of a wolf in the sky peering directly at me with a mountain range and desert in the foreground. I got the clear message that I had asked for this. I had asked for this and I was the only one responsible for any of what I had experienced. I got the message that I was a warrior and it was time to stop with my hesitation and move forward. I then flipped back over onto my back and moved into chanting and humming AUM in all octaves, over and over again.
An introduction to Rapé – Snuff
It was as if the only thing that existed was the vibration of my voice and the very present sensation of my breath. There was nothing else. Again, I am not sure how long I was in this state but eventually I opened my eyes and sat back up crossed legged, my gaze distant and fixed on the ocean before me. The Shaman, still chanting, came over and placed something in my nose and told me to breathe. I took a breath in and then let out a scream and cursed ´Su PUTA madre! (Son of a bitch!)´ It was rapé that he had had me inhale and it seemed to electrocute me right up through my brain and out through my hair follicles. He insisted I had to do the second nostril. I cried out ´No!´ and cursed him again. I heard Alberto encouraging me to take the second hit and reluctantly I took a deep breath and nodded my head in acceptance.
Once again that sense of electric shock filled my brain but this time my eyes rolled back and I fell back again and into another vision of sound and vibration. Every part of me pulsated and vibrated. There was no me. No ego. Just pure existence. Complete and total connection. One big electrical, luminous, colorful wave composed of millions of other electrical, luminous colorful waves. Again, not sure how long I was in that state but a desire to vomit pulled me out of it as I rolled to my side, groaned, screamed and dry heaved, with snot and tears mixing with the sand and vomit below. Alberto offered me something to clean up my face. Then, exhausted, I lay back on my belly, eyes closed, humming in tune with the vibrations in my head as the separation between my heart, solar plexus and belly seemed to dissolve into the earth.
I lay like this for who knows how long until I felt I had fully come back into my body and into three dimensional reality. I sat up again, crossed legged, a quirky and sheepish smile on my face as I looked around at the Shaman, Alberto and the guard woman. I knew I had made quite a scene, but to be honest, I did not care in the slightest what anyone of them thought. In total, only about 25 minutes had passed since I had left the earth and taken a spin around the universe.
The ceremony ended and Alberto and I took a dive into the ocean. I gently paddled and floated along, and despite my exhaustion, I welcomed the cradle like movement of the waves. In the drive back to my apartment I said very little and slept most of the way. I am so grateful to have had Alberto there who understood exactly what I was going through. After dropping me off, he made sure to check back in to make sure that I was okay. I cannot emphasize enough, especially after experiencing it now myself, this is a journey that must be taken with a knowledgeable caregiver nearby.
Post- Sapo Ceremony
The following three to four days after the Sapo ceremony were a struggle. I went for walks along the coast, and witnessed with my eyes the echos of luminous fractals as I watched the ships coming in and going out, the birds flying overhead and the waves crashing in and I remember thinking, ´none of this real´. It all seemed so fragile, transparent, disconnected and distant. I struggled to sleep for those three to four days after the ceremony and I allowed myself to cry as I went into my Yoga practice and talked about my impressions with Alberto.
Eventually the intensity of the experience started to subside and I began to notice a whole new sense of space around my solar plexus area. This became very apparent in the practice of back extensions such as Ustrasana (see photo right) and Urdhva Dhanurasana. I noticed my body, not my mind, reacting in a different way to these familiar poses, that created greater space along the whole front part of my torso. Despite a funky kind of head cold and a slight sense of dizziness that seemed to take hold after the ceremony, in my Yoga Asana and breath practice I noticed a sensation of expansion that I had never experienced before. Sometimes I felt the desire to cry but eventually this transformed into a very pleasurable experience of openness, energy and space.
By the end of the week I felt more stable emotionally. However, I still found myself struggling with the desire to not do much of anything. All motivation to teach and continue down my never ending ´to do list´ all but completely disappeared. This worried and annoyed me as I have always been a person who has enjoyed ´doing´. In effort to try and regain this motivation and inspiration for actively living and doing, I signed up for one more Ayahuasca ceremony before deciding to leave the Yucatán and head for the peace and quiet of the mountains and desert in northern Mexico.
Peru Tradition (Shipibo) Ayahuasca Tradition
‘ The Shipibo tradition is widely regarded as the most intact and profound of the ayahuasca indigenous traditions…and there is one underlying principle that pervades the entire practice: cleanliness. The basic understanding is that within every living being, every cell, is an innate movement towards wholeness and harmony. This motivating principle is a conscious force that acts on its own, and forms the root of all life as we know it. It is an intelligent directive towards health and it works from micro to macro levels of existence. From cells repairing themselves to planetary and galactic movement, this mysterious energy constantly strives to maintain balance, to achieve optimum health. This intelligent motivating principle that pervades all things, this divine directive at the root of all life, can be called God.´
This above explanation of health and healing according to the Shipibo tradition corresponds greatly with the Yogic tradition and its perspective of Prana. Much like this above explanation of the life force that can be called God, within the Yogic system of philosophy and anatomy the concept of Prana, life force, runs through all things. When there is illness or disease it is because the movement of this life force has been blocked in someway shape or form.
It is through the cleansing practices of Shat Kriya, diet, Asana and breath work that Yoga aims to remove these blocks so that the Prana, this life energy, can flow easily and provide health, healing and wholeness. Furthermore, Yogic philosophy also views the micro in the macro and the macro in the micro. This perception of the universe is not new and is not limited to the world of Yoga or Peruvian shamanism. It is a perception that is shared by ancient wisdom traditions throughout the world and is even taking shape in the world of quantum physics as finer tools of measurement are now allowing researchers to perceive the fascinating world of fractals (see picture Below).
And so with this as the background, I ended my shamanic journey through the Yucatán with a Peruvian Shipibo curandero (healer). This time I went on my own to a place deep in the jungle called ´The Temple ´. Upon arrival I understood why it was called that. Amongst the trees and other small huts and tiny clearings, up rose a large circular structure with vaulted ceilings, made entirely of wood. Walking up the stairs and entering into the building I was surprised to see more than forty people sitting around and chatting quietly as they waited their turn for rapé – the same substance that pushed me to curse the Shaman from the Zapo ceremony.
I set up my mat next to a young fellow from California who had never attended a Ayahuasca ceremony, but who had tried Zapo a week earlier. He thought the experience was fantastic and he felt he did not go deep enough. He wished he had had the chance to take another hit. I looked at him, raised my eyebrows in disbelief and when he asked how my experience was, I smirked and simply said that I was ready for the kindness and gentleness, (that in comparison to my experience with the Sapo), Ayahuasca had to offer.
I then sat there watching those waiting to receive rapé and decided that I was not going to let my fear of physical discomfort keep from exploring. So I got in line and waited my turn for the administration of rap’e. What can I say, I am a sucker for punishment. However, though it did cause me to tear up and raise my hands to my head in an effort not to scream, it was a more gentle experience than what I had had on the beach in Cancun, though I am not sure why.
I then went back to my spot until we were informed to all go outside and make a circle around the fire. There was a lot of talk from a guy who I think helped to organize the ceremony. After he had expressed his thoughts and opinions, which must have lasted almost 45 minutes, the Peruvian curandero stepped forth, and like the Columbian Taita , with the blow of a conch shell, blessed and asked for the protection of all four directions. We then went into the temple where one by one, with the help of 2 other assistants, we all took our first ´toma ´.
I sat cross legged and waited from the tea to take effect. There was a piece of me that worried that maybe nothing would happen, but slowly, without me even noticing at first, so gentle and slow was the effect, the brew began its work.
In silence, as I sat cross legged on my mat. I felt the familiar tremble of former experiences start to bubble up from my pelvis to my shoulder. I breathed in deep and opened myself to this now expected internal shiver and shake. My head tilted back, my heart opened, my solar plexus expanded. I then saw clearly the face of an ancient old woman of Peruvian descent, with white hair held in a long braid. She pursed her lips, appeared to be whispering something and with squinted eyes, looked straight into me.
I then gently laid back, with my legs still crossed, placing one hand to the left of my heart and another on the space in between my right ASÍS bone and pubic bone. I felt the heat of my hands pass through the skin to the muscle and into the bone. I could feel the trembling of this area under my hands and I got the message loud and clear, ´Before you heal others, you must heal yourself…and your work is to heal´ and with that my left hand shot up, like I was reaching for, or channeling something, and with a mind of its own, my right hand began to move to all the places that get stuck in my Yoga practice and, at that moment, were gently trembling and vibrating.
Then, still gently trembling, a vision of my recently deceased grandmother as well as what I perceived to be the brother of my great – grandmother – a man with whom I shared a birthday and who was known as a great healer – came into my minds eye. They both seemed to be peering down at me, intent on the work they were doing. I do not know how long this went on for. All I can say, for lack of a better description, is that the energy felt ancient and the experience was extremely pleasant. I sensed Ka wiggling around somewhere in the background, but even my usual sarcastic and spiritual guide, seemed to respect this ancient energy enough to keep its mouth shut and its presence quiet.
Feel the Purge
At some point I sat up again, opened my eyes briefly to assess the environment. I felt the warning pangs of a purge coming. I looked for my bucket and without much fanfare, vomited into it. In comparison to former purging experiences, this one was quite easy and I might even say welcome and pleasant. I was handed a tissue, and asked if I was ok. I felt fantastic.
By then, the music had begun. There was a group of about 6 assistants who played a mix of traditional instruments, a sitar, a guitar and sang. I went back to my lotus position, eyes closed, and without any kind of conscious thought, began a dance of arms and skull. I imagine I must of been quite the sight to see, but I doubt too many people were looking. In these ceremonies, everyone is too immersed in their own process to give a hoot about yours.
So I sat there allowing my arms to move in what must have seemed a weird fusion of flamenco and traditional Indian dance. My hands spiraled and moved in and out of mudras as my arms reached out and then up over my head to the sky. The concept of me disappeared as I moved into the increasingly pleasurable sensation of this seated dance. In this space I deeply understood how yoga form and psychedelics intertwined in the process of healing trauma by experiencing in every action a wholeness and connection. I swam in the beauty of my breath and dived into the depth of all the sensations that were pulsating through me as I allowed my to move into one form and another. There were no visions, no thoughts, just sensation. I felt that space between my eyebrows expand and become cool even as the rest of my body burst forth with heat and electricity.
Again I have no idea how long I was in this blissful state of the seated lotus dance. Eventually I came back into my body, back into the world of material reality, and though more tomas were offered, I felt no need to go further. I quietly got up, went outside, and spent the rest of the hours left of the ceremony walking barefoot through the candle and fire lit darkness outside the temple. I craved the coolness of the evening and the lightness of the stars. The paths were clean and my sight was clear. When the ceremony ended I went back in to join the dancing and offer hugs to my fellow ayahuasqueros. It was probably 4am by the time I got home, and after a cold shower (hot water in the Yucatán is a rare luxury), instantly fell asleep.
Post-Ceremony – psychedelics, yoga, and healing trauma
As described above, the experiences I had encountered with both Ayahuasca and Bufo Alverius were varied and intense. I felt I had been given an incredible amount of information with much of it still waiting to be decoded. The noise and chaos of the massive tourism that permeates Playa del Carmen, as well as most of the Yucatán, left me exhausted. The beach and sea were also full of seaweed and limited greatly the enjoyment of walking along and swimming in the blue Caribbean.
I needed space. I needed peace. I needed silence. I needed a place to digest and integrate everything that I had witnessed and experienced. In an effort to integrate the psychedelic experience I looked to the ancient practices of yoga for healing trauma. I felt inspired to reach out to a friend who was well versed in fasting. After a conversation with him I decided that my next step in this journey of self-healing, exploration and discovery, would be a seven day fast in the mountains of northern Mexico, in a state known as San Luis Potosí.
Psychedelics, Yoga and the Shamanic Journey Part IV: Yoga, Fasting and Integration